Gareth Southgate challenged his England players to “hunt down” the top nations in the build-up to next summer’s Euros.
The trouble was they did not look ready to take the manager at his word because they allowed the world’s top ranked team to have things their own way for far too long – and paid a heavy price.
It was almost as if England played as two different teams in Leuven as they were sloppy in the first half and then impressive in the second half. But by then, it was too late.
Jack Grealish shone again, his flicks and tricks lit up the second half and there is no longer a debate over whether he should play. He was England’s best player by some distance, he thrilled and entertained and had you on the edge of the seat.
It must no longer be a debate over Grealish, but Southgate should be asking whether the 3-4-3 formation is the right system because it did not offer the right balance in the first half with too many defenders and defensive minded players on the pitch.
When Southgate changed it at half time, Harry Winks coming on for Jordan Henderson, they looked a much better proposition and put Belgium under pressure but just could not find the finishing touch.
There were positives for Southgate and yet you cannot have two deep lying midfielders in front of a back three because the front three were isolated in the first half when Belgium were dominant.
They were punished for sloppy mistakes, crucial mistakes and you cannot afford Belgium – with the quality of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Youri Tielemans – the time and space they were given.
Lukaku was terrific, De Bruyne provided wonderful moments of magic, Youri Tielemans was excellent and England just could not find the extra bit of quality to bridge the gap.
Southgate will feel the second half performance deserved more but England are now out of contention of winning their Nations League Group, Wednesday’s tie with Iceland is a dead rubber and it all now feels rather flat.
Southgate only has four more competitive games before choosing his 23 man squad for the Euros next summer and, despite encouraging elements in their performance, there are still plenty of problems to solve.
Harry Kane, winning his 50th cap, led the line well, had a header cleared off the line, Grealish produced another eye catching performance and Mason Mount was lively.
But it was only when Winks started to link midfield and attack, Bukayo Saka provided another dimension from the left after Ben Chilwell went off injured – and yet by then it was too late.
Belgium won it in the first half, getting their first goal after just ten minutes. Eric Dier’s sloppy pass out of defence was intercepted by Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel helped it on to Lukaku who fed Tielemans.
Tielemans unleashed a shot from 20 yards, it deflected off Tyrone Mings, Jordan Pickford touched the ball onto the post but a Leicester midfielder scoring in a stadium sponsored by King Power Leuven seemed particularly fitting.
England nearly replied very quickly. Kieran Trippier’s corner found Kane, his header beat Thibaut Courtois but Lukaku headed off the line. Lukaku went from provider to saviour.
Belgium got a second after 24 minutes. Declan Rice challenged De Bruyne, he got the ball but referee Danny Makkelie still gave a foul. Up stepped veteran Dries Mertens and the midfielder curled a sensational 20 yard free kick into the net.
England were a different team in the second half. Grealish shone, they piled on the pressure and Kane went close but they just could not finish off their attacks.
That was partly down to England’s finishing but also because Belgium, despite being pinned back, were comfortable – and that is why they are the best.
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